Many experts say the global auto business will change more in the next 15 years than it has in the last 50, as new trends such as autonomous cars, electric propulsion, and the rise of crowdsourced mobility combine to offer unprecedented challenges and opportunities to the world's automakers.
Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA) has drawn a great deal of attention from investors, thanks to its innovative electric luxury sedans and the compelling vision of CEO Elon Musk. But it's not yet time to count out the global automakers: Our Motley Fool contributors think there are good reasons to own the best of the established auto giants as we move into this period of dramatic change.
Here are three views on the best big-automaker stocks to own now.
Adam Levine-Weinberg: It's easy to look at General Motors (NYSE:GM) today and see a big mess. The ignition-switch recall scandal has created a never-ending series of negative headlines for the top U.S. automaker.
This too shall pass. For long-term investors, the market's lack of enthusiasm for GM creates a big opportunity. General Motors has vastly improved its operations in the last five years and is on the verge of a sustained rise in its earnings power.
In the U.S. -- which produces most of GM's profit -- it is benefiting from a rebound in demand for pickups and large SUVs. These are two extremely profitable vehicle categories, and GM is strong in both: It has roughly 35% market share in full-size pickups and about three-quarters of the large SUV market.
Previously, GM needed the big profits from truck and SUV sales to offset the huge losses incurred from building smaller cars. However, GM has vastly improved the quality of its cars and has started carefully matching supply to demand. Small cars still aren't a big profit center for the company, but they aren't racking up huge losses, either.
Meanwhile, GM is one of the top two automakers in China. The company intends to invest $14 billion between now and 2018 to open another five manufacturing plants there. This will allow it to grow annual sales from about 3.1 million vehicles to nearly 5 million.
This will include ramping up local production of the Cadillac luxury brand in a bid to increase GM's share of the rapidly growing (and lucrative) Chinese luxury auto market to 10% by 2020.
General Motors still has work to do in turning around its business in other regions. However, the impending closure of the Opel plant in Bochum, Germany, should help GM return to profitability in Europe by 2016. The end of vehicle manufacturing in Australia (a high-cost market) in 2017 should similarly assist GM in returning its other international operations to profitability.
In sum, GM has the products and global manufacturing footprint it needs to earn much bigger profits in the future. Today, investors can buy this future earnings power at a big discount.
Daniel Miller: If you're searching for one of the best automotive stocks for your portfolio, here's one that many overlook: Europe's largest automaker, Volkswagen (NASDAQOTH:VLKAY). The reason Volkswagen makes this list is its ability to generate massive sales figures, and more specifically its strong luxury brands.
Volkswagen intends to keep shoveling money -- $106 billion over the next five years, to be precise -- into research and development for new vehicles, technologies, and factories to eventually surpass Toyota in global sales. Volkswagen might achieve this goal faster than anticipated, as the German automaker expects to sell more than 10 million vehicles globally this year for the first time, and through the first three quarters of 2014 narrowed Toyota's sales lead to 72,000 vehicles.
Sure, Volkswagen surpassing Toyota to become the global leader in vehicle sales would be good for its investors, but luxury brands are what make this automaker a solid investment. Volkswagen's Audi and Porsche brands, among many others it owns, haul in some serious euros.
As shown in the chart above, despite selling a fraction of the vehicles that Volkswagen's namesake brand sold last year, Audi churned out 73% more operating profit. In fact, Audi represented just under 14% of vehicle sales but generated more than 51% of the automotive division's operating profit. Likewise, Porsche sales represented only 1.6% of vehicle sales yet generated more than 26% of the automotive division's operating profit.
Having successful luxury brands is practically a must for global automakers because the luxury segment is affected less during economic downturns and luxury vehicles don't cannibalize sales from mainstream brands.
Volkswagen will remain a solid investment as long as the company's luxury brands continue to churn out strong profits. This will be even truer in the years ahead, as the automaker aims to reduce costs, improve economies of scale, and drive overall profitability even higher.
John Rosevear: There's a lot to like about both GM and VW, but I own Ford (NYSE:F), and I think it still has room to run. The company has pulled off a dramatic turnaround in its home market of North America, pushing operating margins up to 10% and beyond in recent quarters. Those margins have dipped a bit recently as Ford spends big on a slew of new products, but they should bounce back to the 8%-9% range in 2015 as products such as the all-new 2015 F-150 hit their stride in the marketplace.
Despite Ford's success at home, it still has much to do in its far-flung foreign divisions. Why is that a reason to buy? Because that work is getting done. In Europe, Ford is coming to the end of a major restructuring effort initiated by now-retired CEO Alan Mulally in 2012. It closely follows the pattern of the "One Ford" plan that Mulally used to such great effect in North America: cost reductions, careful management of production capacity, and an improved and expanded product line.
Ford Europe lost $1.75 billion in 2012 and $1.6 billion in 2013, and it expects to lose $1.2 billion in 2014. But it says the restructuring effort will cut losses to just $250 million next year, and the unit should return to profitability in 2016. Even if it just breaks even, that's a big boost to Ford's bottom line.
Meanwhile, in Asia, Ford is investing heavily in its biggest expansion in decades, with six new factories opened since 2012 and another four set to open next year. China is the world's largest auto market, and Ford's sales there have boomed from less than 300,000 in 2009 to over 1 million (and counting) in 2014.
That's already a great story for Ford. Its global products seem to have hit a "sweet spot" in the Chinese market, where many consumers want a premium-feeling car without a flashy brand label. And this story is set to improve as Ford continues to rapidly expand its dealer network in the nation and roll out its premium Lincoln brand to Chinese customers -- and as those new factories start producing even more Fords over the next several quarters.
The upshot for investors: Europe and Asia are both on track to add significantly to Ford's bottom line over the next year or two. And with Ford trading at its historical multiple of 10 times the last year's earnings, those future earnings gains aren't yet priced into the stock.
Adam Levine-Weinberg owns shares of General Motors and has the following options: short December 2014 $15 puts on Ford. Daniel Miller owns shares of Ford and General Motors. John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford, General Motors, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.